Sometimes it can seem like there is a tea name circus going on out there. “In the center ring! … a high-flying green tea! … the great Longjing … no, wait, that’s Dragonwell … uh, I mean, Lungching … whatever!” Yes, I fuss a lot about calling those herbals things “teas” versus “tisanes” but this is a different matter entirely. Mankind has steeped, brewed, infused, gulped, and sipped tea for thousands of years, so naturally along the way various names have “clung” to the various teas out there, sort of like how a sock clings to a pant leg when you pull them out of the dryer (not enough softener, I guess).
Add to this that many of the countries where tea is grown do not use our alphabet. (Some countries, like Australia and the UK pretend to speak a sort of English, but that’s a story for another article!) Trying to approximate the sounds in Mandarin with our alphabet is a bit iffy. Ditto for Cantonese, Thai, Hindi, and a host of other languages native to these areas.
Translating from one alphabet to another is bad enough, as someone recently pointed out (on Twitter or Facebook), but some teas have been given totally different English names in addition to the original name. Which is used depends on the vendor. For example, “White Peony” is another name for Bai Mu Dan (or Baimudan), also spelled Pai Mu Tan (or Paimutan), and some vendors use the English name while other vendors use the original name.
Some spelling and full name variations seen online (each bullet gives different names and/or spellings for a specific tea):
- Ali Shan — Alishan
- Bao Zhong — Pao Zhong — Pou Chong — Pouchong — Light Oolong
- Bi Luo Chun — Pi Lo Chun — Green Spiral
- Chinese gunpowder — Zhucha — Pearl Tea — Temple of Heaven
- Chun Mee — Chunmee
- Cui Yu — Tai Cha #13
- Dragonwell — Dragon Well — Long Jing — Longjing — Lungching
- High Mountain — Alpine Oolong
- Jin Xuan — Tai Cha #12
- Matcha — Macha
- Oolong — Wulong
- Oriental Beauty — White Tip Oolong
- Pu-erh — Puerh — Pu-er — Puer
- Qi Lan — Qilan — Wu Yi — Wuyi
- Tie Kuan Yin — Ti Kuan Yin — Tie Guan Yin — Tieguanyin — Iron Guan Yin — Iron Goddess
- Yin Zhen (the Mandarin name) — Silver Needle (the English name)
The above list is hardly complete, just wanted to give you a taste of the scope of this issue.
Then, they throw in names based on legends, such as “monkey picked” (some people swear that trained monkeys pick tea for Buddhist monks, while others say it is a fable), or to be colorful in an allegorical sort of way, such as “Wu Yi” named after the mountain where it was originally grown or “Four Seasons” which can be harvested year round. Add in Taiwanese teas that are currently called “Formosa” after the Portuguese name for the island (“Ilha Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful Island”). Looks like you need to know geography and history to determine the source of your tea!
Even herbals get into the act: Chamomile or Camomile (both spellings are officially accepted) and Rooibos versus Redbush or Rooibosh.
Don’t forget some of those strange and cool names tea vendors give their version of a tea or their special blend, such as “Black Silk” instead of “Golden Bi Luo.”
Whoa! Time to sit and sip some tea so my head stops spinning!
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